2016 Changemaker: Marva Lynn Shellenberger

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Marva Lynn Shellenberger and members of her Lego team.
Photo courtesy of Marva Lynn Shellenberger.

“I was just a loudmouth parent saying to the district that this is a great program, but it is elitist. “
– Marva Lynn Shellenberger

To Marva Lynn Shellenberger there is one essential element to a successful, competitive engineering team: Girls. “My two teams that went on to national competitions in 2016 – one was an all-girls team of five and the other was a mixed team of two girls and a boy,” says Shellenberger. She has coached the Adams Magnet Elementary School’s First Lego League and KidWind Challenge Teams in the St. Paul School District since 2012.

“Girls bring things to a team of boys: a calming to the group, organization, a different way of thinking,” says Shellenberger who heavily recruits not only girls to join her teams, but kids with learning disabilities and children of color.

Both competitions offer student-driven, STEM-based curriculum with local tournaments that feed into national events. First Lego League has a robotic component for students in grades 4-9, while KidWind challenges grades 4-12 to build a functioning wind turbine.

Shellenberger, who owns and operates a home cleaning business, got involved after her son became eligible for First Lego League in the fourth grade. As a parent, Shellenberger quickly saw the stiff competition to simply get on a team.

At the time, 180 kids vied for 10 spots on one team, and the selection process included a pre-selection survey and lottery. Shellenberger worried that her son’s dream may be lost, and she realized that parents who didn’t understand the process, kids with disabilities and people of color were getting edged out. “I was just a loudmouth parent saying to the district that this is a great program, but it is elitist.”

The St. Paul School District and the Adams Magnet Elementary School principal had similar concerns. After the program was moved to the district’s after-school care system, which offered busing and snacks for kids whose parents could not pick them up, but was losing a team because there was no coach, Shellenberger stepped in. She did away with the survey, and has an “open to all” policy. “I knew nothing,” she claims. “Math and science were my worst subjects, but it was student-driven, so the kids just needed organization.”

Shellenberger also saw another pattern. “Girls didn’t think of themselves in science or in doing math. Legos [were] not targeted to girls. They are marketed to boys.”

She started to actively recruit girls onto her teams. “I think it stems from the fact that I’m a girl and that math and science were such failures for me.” Shellenberger now hears girls talk about engineering and math in a whole new way. They are thinking beyond becoming marine biologists simply because they like animals. They realize that renewable energy jobs also protect animals. They know that science industries need accountants, and that you can help people by working in the medical device industry.

With the back-to-back competition seasons running fall through late spring, Shellenberger is now thinking about coding. “I have three months free in the summer,” she jokes.

Minnesota parents and community members who are interested in coaching a First Lego League or KidWind Challenge team can visit HighTechkids.org and KidWind.org. KidWind has a lower entry fee with sponsorship opportunities to cover material costs. Shellenberger suggests volunteering as a judge at the First Lego League competition, which is a great training opportunity. Anyone with an engineering background is needed to volunteer with KidWind.